Book Christmas train fares now to save

Though Chris Rea might be driving home for Christmas, many Britons will be catching the train. And it will be expensive. Rail fares have continually risen in price well above inflation.

However the Consumers' Association says with four weeks to go, now is the time to book if you want to save cash. How big are the savings, and how do you go about it?

Big savings - but be quick

Let's look at some examples first. If you booked your seat midweek this week, a London Marylebone to Birmingham advance ticket is £10.50 for Christmas Eve. Wait until the night before Christmas and this price rises to £51 - and you won't be guaranteed a seat either warns Which?.

"An alternative route to Birmingham is from Euston where advance tickets were available for just £7.50," says the Consumers' Association. "But if you leave it until Christmas Eve to buy, the fare leaps to £48."

You may able to save more money by seeing if you can split your ticket mid-way and buying two tickets rather than one for your journey, it adds.

Other savings are significant. For example, an advance ticket off-peak ticket to Norwich tumbles to just £8 currently. But on Christmas Eve it will cost you £47. Looking at Manchester to London, the cheapest advance single ticket currently costs you £12.50. Delay till Christmas night and that price soars to £76.30.

Bag a deal

As a guiding principle, the earlier you book an advance ticket the better. Advance fares are available 12 weeks before travel, but you can buy them right up to the day before. National Rail has released guidance on buying Advance tickets (see here) but there are big differences between train companies; so buy with care.

Try the TrainLine's Best Fare Finder; or Raileasy can also offer good deals. If it's a regular journey you're taking, check out the Trainline's cheap advance alert system. It will email you when its cheapest advance tickets go on sale (very useful), so you can snap up a cheap fare immediately.

Watch, too, the bag allowance. You're allowed up to three bags on a train generally. But one of these bags must be kept on your lap. If you have more bags to take home with you, check with the train company.

In a recent survey, Virgin Trains topped the Which? customer satisfaction table with a 67% overall customer satisfaction score. First Capital Connect came bottom with a score of 40%.

Meanwhile the TUC recently calculated that since 1995 UK real ticket prices have risen by 107.1% against a general inflation rate of 68.3%.

Consumers' Association figures